City, farm life helped shaped new Research VP's views

Harris doesn't "transport a vision" for research and will spend six months getting to know Sac State's deans and faculty
Thu Sep 13, 2018

Yvonne Harris, who grew up in Chicago, spent summers as a kid picking cotton and feeding hogs on her grandparents’ Mississippi farm. Her parents sent the young girl and her brother into the Deep South by train, a 20-hour trip, with ham sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, fruit, and slices of chocolate cake packed in a shoebox.

“A lot of black parents who had migrated north did that, rather than have their kids run the streets all summer,” she says. “Even now, black friends whose parents also sent them south will ask, ‘What was in your shoebox?’

"When we were on my grandparents’ farm, our cousins and my mother’s remaining siblings would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and do whatever chore we were told to do. We never saw it as work. We saw it as fun being with our grandparents.”

Harris, the new associate vice president for the Office of Research, Innovation and Economic Development (ORIED) at Sacramento State, was born and raised in a low- to middle-income section of Chicago’s south side, where gangs were a growing problem. Even after her family moved to a better neighborhood nearby, the gangs weren’t far behind, she says.

“You develop an antenna for trouble and troubled people, and you put distance between them and you, but sometimes you can’t," Harris says. "Sometimes you’re in their crosshairs. I just wanted to get home safe.

“Growing up, I had to survive in a world where my friends were in gangs, but I could not fall down that well. My parents were strict disciplinarians, and I was held accountable.”

Her mother, Earnestine Hollimon, worked for the publishing house RR Donnelly, putting together telephone books, and father, Albert Hollimon, often worked two jobs, for the U.S. Postal Service and in construction. That hardworking couple insisted their daughter get an education, and she did not disappoint.

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Harris, whose first day at Sac State was June 25, 2018, started her college career as an art major but switched to philosophy and biology. She earned a doctorate of philosophy in science, with an emphasis on molecular and cellular radiation biology, from Northern Illinois University, where she also earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in science.

After receiving her doctorate, she worked as a research associate at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She came to Sacramento from James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va., where she was vice provost for research and scholarship for the past four years. Before that, she was associate vice president for grants and research administration at Chicago State University, and dean of the mathematics and science division at William Rainey Harper College, in Palatine, Ill.

“Dr. Harris has 18 years of administrative experience and extensive experience promoting economic development efforts in the communities surrounding the universities where she worked,” Sac State Provost Ching-Hua Wang says.

“We are fortunate to have her joining us to spearhead our collective efforts in research and creative activities and to connect Sac State to the region we serve as its Anchor University.”

Harris, who oversees faculty research activities at Sacramento State, will spend her first few months on campus meeting with the deans of the seven academic colleges.

“I don’t transport a vision,” she says. “The vision depends on the culture here, what the University wants to achieve, where it wants to go. It’s clear that Sacramento State is moving in a direction that goes beyond it being just a teaching institution.

“I want to better understand the direction the deans want their college to move and get a very good understanding of how they define research.”

Harris says that research has varied definitions and practices, but stresses that teaching cannot be done well if associated research is not high quality.

Among the dozens of faculty research projects underway:

  • Sharon Furtak (psychology) recently received a $465,000 four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study fear.
  • Robert Crawford and Thomas Peavy (biological sciences) are looking at novel therapeutic strategies for patients suffering from infection/hypertrophic scarring caused by burn injuries.
  • Mona Siegel (history) is writing a book about the women whose global political activism shaped the Peace of 1919.

Most faculty engage students in their work, giving them the opportunity for real-world learning experiences. This practice is a proven success.

“We know from industry that students who have hands-on intense research experiences are more desirable for hire,” Harris says. “They make for better problem-solvers and better critical thinkers.”

After meeting with the seven college deans, Harris' plans were to spend time with all faculty researchers.

“Over time, the idea is for everyone to be heard and have the attention of the research office and move their research agenda forward," she says.

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Those summers on her grandparents’ farm began to shape Harris, as single mother, into the woman she would become. That woman, in addition to her professional pursuits, writes science fiction short stories to teach high school students about biology; is writing two novels; and used to build her own personal computers using store-bought components.

“From that experience, I understand the value of work and family,” she says, “and I look at it as more than a work ethic. It’s about living for your family, making sure that your family is provided for."

Harris’ daughters are Nile Aisha Harris, who earned a master’s degree in business administration and serves as director of strategic services for a marketing consulting firm in Nashville, and Cree T.C. Harris, who lives in Indianapolis, where she works as an industrial process engineer for CLIF Bar & Co.

"You should live so that your children do better than you," Harris says. "That’s what I believe and taught my daughters. My parents got that from their parents, and their parents before them. We were taught to be moral and ethical and have value.” – Dixie Reid